For our “Greenpreneur Series”, which features alumni working in sustainability sectors, Tajrean Rahman (Harvard College '20) interviewed alumna Meera Atreya. Meera (Harvard College ’09) was a Resource Efficiency Program REP for Kirkland House. She followed her passion for the environment and science, striving to tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goals through the private sector.
What sparked your passion for environmental sustainability?
I have been passionate about addressing climate change from a young age, even donating my allowance sometimes to environmental non-profits. As a teenager, I remember reading a government publication entitled Climate Change: State of Knowledge that was published in 1997, when I was 10. This booklet explained, in simple terms and diagrams, what we were doing to our planet and how we needed to scale back our greenhouse gas emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change.
In the two decades following, I have felt overwhelmingly disappointed in society’s failure to act on something so vital to our very existence. Combining this passion for sustainability with a belief in my own abilities to effect change, I feel compelled out of both interest and a sense of duty to address what I believe to be the most important challenge humanity faces. We need every smart mind on this problem; the effects of climate change exacerbate all other issues: health, security, education, etc.
I feel compelled out of both interest and a sense of duty to address what I believe to be the most important challenge humanity faces. We need every smart mind on this problem.
How did your aspirations evolve over time, especially during your years at Harvard?
To address climate change, I understood that the priority was to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This meant transitioning from fossil-based energy to renewable energy. I became especially interested in and fascinated by science, concentrating in Chemical & Physical Biology and enrolling in electives such as “Energy, Technology, and the Environment” and “Atmospheric Chemistry.” Outside of class, I was a Resource Efficiency Program REP, where I helped my Kirkland classmates change their behaviors, and most importantly, I pursued world-class laboratory research. Thanks to the incredible mentorship of Professor David Liu and then graduate student Kevin Esvelt (now a professor at MIT), I developed a love for research and the confidence to pursue high-impact opportunities (my undergraduate research project, culminating in a Hoopes thesis prize, involved using directed evolution towards developing a gene therapy to prevent HIV infection).
How did you pursue those aspirations after graduating?
Because I found my scientific research experience at Harvard so enriching and aimed to generate technological innovations to mitigate climate change, I decided to pursue a PhD. When I was applying to graduate schools, in 2008, it was unclear which renewable energy technologies would really help us wean off fossil fuels. Solar and wind were still far from being cost-competitive. I considered all forms of renewable energy technologies, from algal biofuels to fusion, and landed on bio-energy as the one most aligned with my scientific interests in chemical biology. Although biofuels are not necessarily my “favorite” renewable, my research expertise was well suited to tackling this topic, which I worked on for six years at UC Berkeley as I pursued my PhD.
After earning my doctorate, having realized academia was not the right fit for me, I spent 2.5 years as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in their London office. This past summer, as a McKinsey Global Social Responsibility Fellow, I worked on the environmental footprint strategy of the firm, helping to drive the company to become “carbon neutral” by investing in carbon-reduction projects to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, to set science-based emission reduction targets, and to purchase 100% renewable electricity in all of their offices. This was a satisfying legacy to leave.
Tell me about the work you’re doing now at SYSTEMIQ.
SYSTEMIQ is a mission-driven B-corporation focused on driving the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by transforming markets and business models in three key economic systems: land use, materials, and energy. With its strong focus on alleviating climate change, relevance to my scientific and consulting expertise, and high ambition to change entire systems to be both more sustainable and more equitable, SYSTEMIQ is a perfect fit for me.
I am currently working on a project to help address the ocean plastic crisis. We aim to understand the current flows of plastic waste (e.g., from waste generation to its collection, sorting, and recycling or disposal) across geographic archetypes. Working with experts around the globe, we will provide an evidence-driven analysis of the costs, trade-offs, and impacts of potential solutions to reduce the flow of plastic waste into our oceans.